It starts with the Ealing Studios logo, but while this tale of a lovable pair of graverobbers turned killers shares the black comedy of many Ealing titles, the execution is more akin to a Carry On film. We’re spared the constant double entendres, but do get a long line of cameos from familiar comedy faces (and Michael Winner), some of whom give fairly shonky performances. The opening scene, with our lovable anti-heroes getting splattered with shit, doesn’t really tell the whole story but isn’t a great omen.
Simon Pegg and Andy Serkis star as a pair of Irish chancers trying to earn a dishonest crust in 1820s Edinburgh. Rivalry between the head doctors at the city’s prominent medical teaching institutions creates a gap in the market for fresh bodies for dissection; a gap that Burke and Hare are quick to fill, first by taking advantage of a death by natural causes, then by more nefarious means.
Some might question the taste of turning the story of a pair of murderous into a jolly romp. Not me; I’m sick. But there is a challenge in making the leads both plausible – they turn to crime due to desperate need for money, which is a reasonably current issue – while seeming like people you might like, in order for the audience to care what happens about them. Both Pegg and director John Landis have form in mixing comedy with horror, in Shaun of the Dead and American Werewolf in London respectively. Those films worked because the scripts were good, with characters you both believed in and liked; Shaun and his mates felt like people you might actually meet down the pub, as did the luckless hitchhikers of American Werewolf. Burke & Hare doesn’t have such strong foundations; the thriller element doesn’t particularly excite, and the jokes just aren’t funny enough. The audience I saw it with only managed a few chuckles.
Pegg and Serkis do what they can; Pegg does best with the more morally troubled but easily lead of the two, falling puppyishly in love with actress Isla Fisher. Serkis has the more venal character to play, and works well with his screen wife (Jessica Hynes).
The rest of the cast varies considerably. Tom Wilkinson brings his usual dignity, and a couple of American Werewolf cast members also pop up (I won’t spoil it by telling you who). Against that, we have to suffer Ronnie Corbett, who destroys every scene he’s in as the leader of the militia hunting Burke and Hare. Laboriously delivering every line as though still in a late 70s Two Ronnies sketch doesn’t count as acting, I’m afraid.
The film looks good (I’m a bit of a sucker for anything set in Edinburgh), doesn’t overstay its welcome, and is amiable enough. However, I was hoping for a bit more.